Olmert slammed for lame-duck views on peace process

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jerusalem | The Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and those on the left slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove as evidence of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert is stepping down amid a corruption investigation. In the interview, published Sept. 29 by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, he made the following points:

• It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

• Israel has a very short window of time to take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

• For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

• For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

• Israel is very close to agreement with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

• The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

• Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he said at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed overseas, but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Oct. 3 titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go — a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Livni bristled at the implication peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, saying she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be given all the time they needed to ripen into a well constructed and lasting deal.